Netanyahu ready for new elections if Knesset fails to back peace policy

JERUSALEM, Dec. 16 (JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to make a last-ditch attempt to regain control of his government came as a constellation of competing political forces threatened to unseat him. First and foremost was the reaction within his coalition, and even within his own Cabinet, to the Wye accord. The lack of Cabinet support loomed large in the premier’s decision to seek backing from the Knesset next week for his stance on the peace process — implementation of Wye, but only if the Palestinian Authority takes further steps to live up to already signed accords. If Knesset support is lacking, he announced Wednesday, he would call for new elections. The erosion of backing from his own ministers was growing increasingly evident in recent days before one of them, Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman, submitted his resignation on Tuesday. The expectation that a moderate Cabinet member, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, would soon call for early elections provided the final impetus for Netanyahu to go for broke, according to Israeli media reports. If the matter goes to the Israeli electorate, the peace process will be put on hold until the public is heard from, a senior government official said Wednesday. But in Washington, the State Department said Israel should implement the Wye accord as scheduled even if Netanyahu’s government falls. “The Wye agreement was approved by both the Israeli government and the Knesset. Consistent with that, we feel it should be carried out and implemented as agreed,” said State Department spokesman James Rubin. Wednesday’s dramatic political developments in Israel took place in the shadow of a possible American strike against Iraq, which has again barred U.N. arms inspectors from seeking out weapons of mass destruction. Netanyahu said he believed that in the event of an American strike on Iraq, in spite of the political turmoil surrounding him, Israel would unite to deal with the situation. Mordechai said that the branches of the defense establishment were in a state of readiness and that the army’s home front command was ready to be mobilized if there was indeed an attack against Baghdad. Netanyahu’s make-or-break attempt to deal with his shaky coalition reflected a calculated political decision. A political strategist of the first order — a talent perhaps borne of necessity, given the coalition he cobbled together upon his election two years ago — Netanyahu had decided that it was better to take the initiative than suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of the legislature. Indeed, he has now left it to those opposing him from within the coalition to determine whether they really want to risk their Knesset seats in new elections — and also risk a possible incoming Labor government. Since his election in 1996, Netanyahu has walked a political tightrope as he attempted to meet the competing demands of his coalition, formed of right-wing and religious parties. Matters snowballed with the signing of the Wye agreement in late October, when far-right coalition members threatened to topple the government over the land-for-security deal with the Palestinians. Matters grew worse when the leftist opposition withdrew a safety net for Netanyahu over the recent lack of progress in the peace process. Meanwhile, the Orthodox parties in the coalition also waved the scepter of no-confidence over the prime minister’s head. Their ire was provoked by a series of recent rulings by the High Court of Justice that they said alter the religious status quo. The coalition disharmony has impeded all areas of government functioning. Its inability to get parliamentary passage of the state budget, which by law must be approved by Dec. 31, prompted Ne’eman resignation. Opposition leader Ehud Barak, smelling political blood, waved off the possibility that he would support the creation of a national unity government. “We’re going to elections,” he predicted on television. “What kind of unity government can there be with a government that has surrendered to the extremists, smashes the economy, smashes the society, smashes the norms of government?” Acknowledging that he had reached a political impasse within his government, Netanyahu made the dramatic announcement Wednesday that if he does not get Knesset backing, he would call early elections “in order to receive the necessary mandate from the people to achieve real peace.” Speaking from Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu said he would present an explicit plan next week spelling out his oft-repeated stance — that “Israel is ready to continue the peace process, contingent upon the principle of reciprocity.” Netanyahu said he did not intend to capitulate to the far-right and tear up the Wye accord, or to the left-wing by carrying out the further redeployments indiscriminately. He claimed that his “policy is widely supported — and there is a reason why. Because it is right.” Reflecting his growing impatience with counting heads in the Knesset to see if he had the necessary support, he added, “I will not run after anyone. We are standing, with deep, personal conviction, that we are going in the right way.” In a sharp speech, Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon voiced that same impatience. “We have no more ability to waste time running after this Knesset member, or that minister, or that party,” he said. “The collapse was from within. It is okay to be critical of the government. But people did not understand that there is a certain point where you have to stop, when you realize that otherwise the government will fall.”

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